Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Hilary Mantel must be chortling in her chops now that the BBC has decided to broadcast her story "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" on its Book at Bedtime show in January. The Tories are saying that it is a purposeful attack on them by the Left-wing biased BBC, "a sick book from a sick mind" says former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit, whose wife was paralyzed when the IRA tried to murder Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing.
I read the book that includes that purposely-provoking story when it first came out a few months ago and decided to say nothing about it on this blog, for I found practically all of the stories trivial and lazy and of interest only because Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her highly praised historical novels about Cromwell.
One might wonder what she would do with the short story genre.
Not much, it seems to me.
Then I read the reviews and saw the book had been placed on the "Best" list of several publications and decided that perhaps it deserved another look.
Not so. my initial judgment did not change: the stories seemed mostly self-promotions, calculated to sell the book not because of its worth, but because of Mantel's reputation and her mean-spiritedness.
It is hard not to be harsh with Mantel since she is so well-known for being mean to others. Not only as she boasted in public about her own fantasies to assassinate Thatcher, whom she admits she loathed, she also got a lot of attention a few months ago by attacking the future Queen, calling the Duchess "a machine-made princess, designed by committee," a "shop-window mannequin" with a "plastic smile."
With a title story (that originally appeared first in The Guardian and The New York Times Book Review) that describes a woman's sympathetic support of an IRA gunman who invades her apartment in order to shoot Margaret Thatcher, I suspected that reviews of the book might reflect the political leaning—left or right—of either the newspaper or the reviewer. It is also difficult to know whether reviewers might be merely influenced by Mantel's work in the genre of Historical novel, or who are swayed by the fact that she is the only woman who has ever won the Man Booker twice. I don't know.
The only two reviews that struck me as interesting is the one by displaced British writer James Lasdun in The Guardian and another by Stanford professor Terry Castle in The New York Times Book Review--and not just because these two papers originally published the story.
Lasdun, himself a fine short-story writer, whose work I have discussed on this blog, opens his Guardian piece with the following paragraph, with which I agree so fully I could have written it myself. In fact, I have written it in various places over the years:
Short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians. Their brevity invites us to engage with them as formal structures in a way that novels generally don't. We judge them as artefacts even as we consume them as narrative, and consciously or not, we demand all kinds of contradictory things from them. We want them to feel inventive but uncontrived, lifelike but extraordinary, surprising but inevitable, illuminating but mysterious, resolved but open-ended. It's a tall order, as anyone who has tried to write one will know.
It's interesting that the one story in the collection that Lasdun calls "easily the best in the book" was originally published as a memoir. "Sorry to Disturb" recounts a Mantel experience of being somewhat "stalked" by a Pakistani businessman while living in Saudi Arabia during the 80's. Lasdun calls it a "comedy of cross cultural sexual politics" and says it fulfills all the criteria for a short story that he listed in his opening paragraph.
And, yes, there is some of the mystery of motivation in the story that we associate with great short stories. The narrator's admission that after the events occurred it was difficult to grasp what had happened, Lasdun says is part of the story's power—"the sense that for all her vivid analyses and articulations of her own behaviour, she remains a little baffling even to herself." Perhaps it was Mantel's personal involvement in this experience that makes it the only effective story in the collection.
Lasdun is not so fond of the title story, which he dubs "jeerleading." Other stories, such as "Comma," "Winter Break," and "The Heart Fails Without Warning," he quite rightly, in my opinion, sees as trivial, plot-based stories of the grotesque. His conclusion: "four or five flawed successes and interesting failures; one knockout."
Terry Castle, professor of literature at Stanford, and author/editor of The Apparitional Lesbian, Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, and the Literature of Lesbianism, calls Mantel a "master storyteller," and compares her to Edgar Allan Poe at his best in "Fall of the House of Usher." Castle puts Mantel in a long lineage of British female story-telling from Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield through Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O'Brien, Muriel Spark, and Zadie Smith. (One gets the feeling Castle is not talking so much about Mantel the short-story writer as she is Mantel the historical novelist, for she is rather careful to give only a cursory glance at the stories contained in Mantel's collection, being content to generalize about Mantel herself.
Castle concludes, "Mantel is such a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer that part of what one's praise must mean is that if you're intelligent and quirky enough to take the book up at all—and anyone reading to this point most likely will be—she's got quirks enough of her own to match you, if not raise you 10."
Well, I am glad that Castle thinks she is intelligent and quirky enough to admire this book. I reckon I am just not intelligent enough or quirky enough, to appreciate Mantel's adolescent game-playing with disfigurement, birth defects, attempted assassination, and rants about poor hotel accommodations. Not to mention, just plain sloppy, rough draft writing.
More like very poor "Twilight Zone" than Edgar Allan Poe.
Not worth my time. Not worth yours. Unless you are just bound and determined to reward nastiness and condescension and shameless exploitation of one's own fame. The short story deserves better. Mantel is certainly no "master" of the form.
Although some Mantel admirers may find this blog a bit of a bashing, I assure you that it is nowhere near the nastiness that Hilary Mantel is guilty of.
Posted by Charles E. May at 4:26 PM
Sunday, December 7, 2014
I have recently checked the "Best Books of 2014" postings for the following twenty different newspapers, magazines, and websites:
New York Times
The Huffington Post
National Public Radio
Amazon's Best Books of 2014
Wall Street Journal
Los Angeles Times
Although there are many more novels listed than short story collections, according to the experts at the sources listed above, the "Best" or "Notable," or "Recommended collections of short stories (and the number of times they were picked) this year are:
Phil Klay, Redeployment, 8
Lorrie Moore, Bark, 8
Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher 5
Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't 4
Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress 4
The Stories of Jane Gardam 3
Elizabeth McCrackin, Thunderstruck 2
Alice Munro, Family Furnishings 2
Also listed are three books that are not short story collections, but on which I may post:
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Peter Mendelsund ,What We See When We Read
Other collections of stories that were picked at least once are:
Julia Elliott, The Wilds
Rivka Galchen, American Innovations
Tove Jansson, The Woman who Borrowed Memories
Paul Theroux, Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories
Graham Swift, England and Other Stories
The Derek Smith Omnibus
During December and January, I plan to post on :
Lorrie Moore's Bark
Phil Klay's Redeployment
Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Steven Pinker, The Sense of StylePeter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Back in May, when I participated in the Alice Munro Symposium at the University of Ottawa, I asked Munro's U.S. publisher and U.S. agent if there were plans to publish a Collected Stories of Alice Munro. They said there were so many stories (139) a single volume would be too big, and multi-volume sets were not great sellers. However, they did say they were working on a volume of selected stories published since the 1997 Selected Stories—1968-1994, containing twenty-eight stories from Munro's first seven collections. They said they had a great title for the new volume, Family Furnishings, which was the title of a story that appeared in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001. Family Furnishings: Selected Stories—1995-2014, Munro's final book, if we take her at her word that she has retired, came out in early November in the U.S. It contains twenty-four stories.
Since the table of contents is not posted on Amazon, or anywhere else I can find, as a public service to my readers, here is the TOC of Family Furnishings, including the titles of the volumes where the stories originally appeared in book form.
The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
"The Love of a Good Woman"
"The Children Stay"
"My Mother's Dream"
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)
"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage"
"Post and Beam"
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain"
The View From Castle Rock (2006)
"The View From Castle Rock"
"Working for a Living"
Too Much Happiness (2009)
"Too Much Happiness"
Dear Life" (2012)
"To Reach Japan"
I don't know who was responsible for the selections in Family Furnishings. I suspect Munro, in consultation with her Knopf editors, made the choices. Nobody asked me, but I would have made some different choices. Just to single out two, I would have liked to have seen "Wenlock Edge" from Too Much Happiness and "Corrie" from Dear Life.
Because these stories have all appeared in separate volumes, which were widely reviewed in America, Canada, and England, I did not expect there to be new reviews of Family Furnishings. And indeed, a search of Lexis-Nexis turned up only a brief notice on Kirkus and only full reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle review is by Molly Antopol, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and now a creative writing lecturer at Stanford, author of a collection of stories, The UnAmericans. It is a routine praise piece, providing no insight other than that Munro disdains literary rules and gives us complicated characters capable of both kindness and cruelty.
David Ulin, book critic for the LA Times, is also at a loss for words in his attempt to account for what makes Munro the great writer she is, content with an agreement with Jane Smiley in the Foreword that Munro's stories promise no drama or transcendence, but rather domestic reflections of reality—whatever that is. "Such a line between reality and fiction, life and literature," says Ulin, "seems especially the province of the short-story writer, who can work by inference in a way novelists cannot."
Ulin does not bother to explain what he means by the line between reality and fiction or how inference in the short form walks that line better than the novel. That would have been helpful. I do think that Ulin is right when he says that Munro's characters tell stories "not just to mark their passage but also to survive." It is an issue I am exploring in my current essay on Munro as a Scheherazade who has to tell stories or die. Ulin also says it is Munro's willingness to "blur the line" (the line between reality and fiction?) that is part of "the elusive power" of her later works." But this may be simply because Munro has, at least since The View from Castle Rock, been writing what she has called "not quite stories," but rather memoirs on the borderline of stories.
In her "Foreword," Jane Smiley says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward" and that in her last six books, she has become more experimental rather than less so. Smiley says that Munro has made something new out of the short story, "using precision of language and complexity of emotion to cut out the relaxed parts of the novel and focus on the essence of transformation." I like that phrase, but wish that Smiley had talked a bit more about what she mean by "transformation." Is this the transformation of reality into fiction, the line that Ulin says Munro blurs so brilliantly? Perhaps.
Smiley says that since Munro's chosen form is the short story, "her overriding theme is brevity—look now, act now, contemplate now, because soon, very soon, this thing that involves you will be over." What is the "theme of brevity"? That we are poor players who strut and fret and have but short a time on stage? Perhaps she means something similar to what Nadine Gordimer mean by her metaphor of "fireflies" several years ago, which I include in my Short Story Theories collection. I have quoted it before, but here it is again. It's worth repeating:
"Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist. Short-story writers have known--and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped by human reality.
How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."
Smiley joins other writers who vow and declare that they do not understand how Munro does what she does. In a "Page-Turner" piece in which the New Yorker asked several writers what Alice Munro's fiction has meant to them, Julian Barnes said he sometimes tries to work how she does it, but never has succeeded and is happy in the failure. In the same piece, Lorrie Moore says, Munro is "a short-story writer who is looking over and past every ostensible boundary, and has thus reshaped an idea of narrative brevity and reimagined what a story can do."
Smiley says her favorite tribute to Munro is by the Canadian writer David Macfarlane, who says that although he has paid "enjoyable close attention" to Alice Munro, he can't quite figure out how she does what she does. "I guess by magic." Macfarlane says he has decided to leave it at that.
Many writers and critics have admitted they are stymied by what makes Alice Munro great, although they all—well almost all—agree that she is. A couple of years ago, Christian Lorentzen, an editor at London Review of Books, received quite a bit of flak from Munro lovers by writing a somewhat caustic review in LRB.
Several others have reacted to this rare attack on Munro, (see Kyle Minor's riposte in Salon, June 10, 2013) so I won't bother, except to suggest that Lorentzen's objections, in my opinion, boil down to his failure to understand how short stories work. Basically, his complaint with Munro is her content; in short, her focus on domestic, rural Canadian women bores him or depresses him. He says his reading of ten of her books over a short period of time left him in a state of "mental torpor" that made him sad with the shabby, grubby world of her stories, as well as her emphasis on the "real," i.e. physical, world she creates.
What he does not like about her style is her "anti-modernism," her old school realism, her sanding her prose to an "uncommon smoothness." In a cutesy metaphor, he says reading Munro's sentences is "something like walking across a field after a blizzard in a good pair of snowshoes: It's a trudge, but when you get to the other side your feet aren't wet." I am not sure how Lorentzen can criticize Munro's fiction for its grittiness and also for its smoothness.
But, this is the seeming contradiction that Jane Smiley praises when she says Munro is "simultaneously strange and down-to-earth, daring and straightforward." This is what David Ulin and many others like about Munro's blurring the line between reality and fiction—indeed what all great fiction does. This is the magic of Alice Munro. It is the magic I will be trying to understand in the three essays on Munro I am currently working on.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
I like the editing method of Best American Short Stories better than the method of O. Henry Prize Stories. In the latter, the 20 stories depend solely on the taste and judgment of Laura Furman, and I don't always understand her judgment. In the BASS, Heidi Pitlor picks 120 stories and then turns the batch over to an independent judge, usually a fiction writer, to choose the final 20. Since the guest judge differs each year, the reader gets some variety. I really liked the selection Elizabeth Strout chose for the 2103 edition of BASS.
But although I enjoyed Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was not impressed with her selection in this year's BASS. I thought too many of the stories depended on "ripped from the headlines" newsworthy content, simple concepts, or technique tricks. Oh, well, next year is another year, and regardless of how I felt abou this year's batch of stories, I will look forward to the 2015 editions of Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. Here are my ho-hum reactions to the 20 stories chosen by Jennifer Egan in this year's BASS.
"Charity" by Charles Baxter focuses on a young gay man named Matty Quinn who has come back from working in Ethiopia with infections that get him started taking painkillers. He lives in a basement apartment in Minneapolis, but his boyfriend lives in Seattle. When his painkillers run out, he mugs and robs a man to buy more, for which he feels guilt. Part I of the story ends with his disappearance. The second part of the story is told in first person by the Seattle boyfriend, who has just told/written the first part of the story. He comes to Minneapolis and finds homeless Matty living on the riverbank. After cleaning him up, Harry, the boyfriend, beats up Matty's drug dealer and takes Matty back to Seattle and sets him up in an apartment. a simple plot-based story that depends on "ripped from the headlines" prescription drug abuse, African poverty, and homosexuality.
Anne Beattie, "The Indian Uprisin." The most famous story with this title is by Donald Barthelme. The only indication that Beattie may have had it in mind is the opening disclaimer by one of the characters in her story: "There's no copyright on titles. It wouldn't be a good idea, probably, to call something Death of a Salesman, but you could do it." The story is largely made up of witty dialogue with literary allusions between the female narrator and a seventy-year diabetic man who was once her creative writing professor. While they are eating in a Mexican restaurant, she sees blood on her old professor's foot and faints. When his receptionist, a postoperative transgender, comes to take him to the hospital, he takes a Mexican hat off the wall and puts it on, prompting someone to say, "There might be an Indian uprising if we stop him.". The story ends with the narrator telling us that the professor refused dialysis and died. Heeding her professor's last bit of advice to find something to write about after he is dead, the narrator says, even if I don't believe there's a poem in anything anymore, maybe I'll write a story." And it is this story--not a great story, but Anne Beattie-clever as usual. I don't see any thematic connection between the story and the Barthelme story. Perhaps Beattie had a personal connection in mind.
The voice we hear in Peter Cameron's "After the Flood" is that of an elderly woman who "writes" the story in a rambling, casual manner, with numerous asides. The story begins with the woman's minister, Reverend Judy, coming to ask the narrator and her husband if they will temporarily take in the Djukanovics, a family whose house and belongings have been destroyed by a flood. Something has happened in the past to the narrator's daughter, Alice, but she does not talk/write about that even. In a final conversation between the narrator and the minister, we get hints that the narrator's daughter and her own daughter Laila have been killed by the son-in-law because of financial losses. The story ends with the narrator and her husband deciding not to go to church any more. For a famous version of a similar "Displaced Person" story that deals more complexly with loss, charity, and faith, see Flannery O'Connor's story of that name. Cameron's story perhaps depends too much on a "ripped from the headlines" murder and a too simple treatment of loss of faith.
T.C. Boyle, "The Night of the Satellite." This couple-conflict story focuses on two English graduate students. On the way to a friend's farmhouse, they encounter another couple having what the central male character calls "a lover's quarrel." The central female character wants to help the young woman in the quarrel; the man does not. This leads to clashes between the two, which is cranked up even more in the evening when they go to bar and run into the couple again. While they are quarreling out in a dark field later that night, a small piece of mesh falls from the sky and hits the man on the shoulder. He finds out online that a NASA satellite had fallen out of orbit, scattering some debris; but his girlfriend thinks it is just from a tractor or a lawnmower and throws it away. The first-person narrator drives away from the farmhouse and sees the quarreling couple once again, still fighting. He thinks that they can go on "careering around the world on any orbit they wanted just as long as it never intersected mine again." He calls his girlfriend, but she is still angry with him, so he hangs up, thinking that he wanted to say was that he would be back and that she should look up in the sky "where the stars burn and the space junk roams, because you never can tell what's going to come down next." This is a simple story based on a single metaphor of accidental stuff out of nowhere that sometimes exposes character weaknesses and incompatibilities—right out of 1001 Nights.
Nicole Cullen, "Long Tom Lookout" begins with the central character, Lauren, being given responsibility for caring for her husband's 5-year-old son Jonah after the child's mother is sent to jail for drug possession and the father is on an oil spill skimming vessel on the Gulf of Mexico. Insisting that she has no intention of being the boy's mother, she drives to Idaho and takes a job with the Forest Service as a fire Lookout. You know that being stuck on a lookout tower with the boy in the forest, there will be some sort of crisis and Lauren will feel a commitment to the child. Sure enough, that's what happens.
Craig Davidson, "Medium Tough." The gimmick in this first-person pov story by a doctor is the heavy dependence on technical language of ailments, procedures, medical devices, and the good doctor's flippant use of the tools of his trade. A good dictionary would be helpful here, but is it worth it? One character says to the narrator, "I love it when you talk shop." You will have to love the shop talk also to get through this story. But then the story would not exist without it.
Joshua Ferris, "The Breeze"—This is a "What do you want to do tonight?"/"I dunno. What do you want to do" story. This "much ado about nothing" story is held together quasi-poetically and supposedly meaningfully by the metaphor of the "breeze" of the title. The woman is enraptured by the breeze and it isn't in him to feel such things. And, so it goes, or doesn't go, as they continue to query, "What do you want to do?"/ "I dunno. What do you want to do?" A New Yorker story in the old bad way.
Nell Freudenberger, "Hover"—An easy, trivial, single-read story about a mother who, against her will, hovers slightly above the ground. It only happens when she is doing "mom stuff," and so this is what it signifies—doing mom stuff.
David Gates, "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me"—I have to admit that I found this story about an English professor who teaches the Victorian novel and his friendship with a father-figure mandolin-picker of bluegrass music who is dying of cancer hard to resist. But then I am an English professor from Eastern Kentucky who loves bluegrass music and wrote his dissertation on Thomas Hardy. What's your excuse?
Lauren Groff, "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners"—The story begins in good old David Copperfield novelistic fashion—"Jude was born in a cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles." Now, all Groff has to do is invent what happened to this child whose father is a crazy snake-raiser and whose mother runs away. If I were to summarize the story, you would think I was summing up a novel that ends with a man who escapes the "hungry darkness."
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "The Judge's Will"—O.K. here's the situation: A Delhi judge has a heart attack, his second, and decides he must tell his wife about the provisions in his will for the woman he has been keeping for 25 years. When she finds out he wants her to meet the woman, she takes it rather well, for she does not love him, and is only concerned with her son, who is more like a brother to her than a son. When the woman begins visiting the house on a regular basis, the relationships between the four all become like what the son says is an "old-fashioned French farce." A plot-based 1001 Nights type story that is fun, but not fulfilling.
O. A. Lindsey, "Evie M."—This is a first-person pov story in the form of notes taken by a veteran of one of the recent wars in the Middle East. Although the narrator imagines ejaculating and a colleague makes a reference to sucking the narrator's dick, it seems relatively clear that the narrator is a female with a female lover and is suffering some form of post-traumatic stress, the story ending with a suicide attempt. More "ripped from the headlines."
Will Mackin, "Kattekoppen"—An American soldier in Afghanistan regularly gets a childhood favorite Dutch licorice from his mother, for she does not know that he no longer likes the candy. In fact no one likes the candy, so it stays on a shelf, becoming valued only when the narrator uses it to mask the smell of a decomposing ambushed comrade. You gotta like war stories to like this one.
Brendan Mathews, "This is Not a Love Song." In his comments on this story, Mathews says it was busted until he discovered the point of view he needed to make it work. The pov he uses is a series of photographs focusing on a female rock singer with whom the narrator/photographer went to high school and with whom she is so obsessed that friends think they are lesbians. The story depends largely on the photo pov.
Molly McNett, "La Pulchra Nota"—The center of this story of a14th century music teacher is his understanding of la pulchra nota—the moment that music comes closest to perfection: "La pulchra nota is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows—a pause, however small—is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization." This is Isak Dinesen type fable of disfigurement, loss, denial, religious obsession, sin, and punishment.
Benjamin Nugent, "God"—The first sentence sums up the story: "He called her God because she wrote a poem about how Caleb Newton ejaculated prematurely the night she slept with him, and because she shared the poem with her friends." If you were in a college fraternity, you may appreciate this story. I was not.
Joyce Carol Oates, "Mastiff." I read this story when it first appeared in The New Yorker. Every time I read a new Joyce Carol Oates story, I try to like her, but God help me, I cannot. She makes it look so easy. And in most cases that's what the story is—easy. Joyce Carol Oates can make a story out of everything. And it seems she does. For Oates, anything—such as a man being attacked by a huge dog—can mean something—that is, if, like Oates, you know how to make a story.
Stephen O'Connor—"Next to Nothing"—Two sisters, sociologists, are caught in Hurricane Irene. I made the mistake of reading O'Connor's "contributor's notes" on this story before reading the story—a mistake because I liked the notes better than I did the story. O'Connor suggests the story is about the complex paradox that even though he is an atheist, he must live by faith—"not in spiritual terms, but in the sense that in order to be a happy and decent human being" he must cherish beliefs that can never be verified. Intriguing idea that catches my imagination. The story not so much.
Karen Russell, "Madame Bovary's Greyhound"—I have posted blogs on Russell's two collections of stories St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Groves. You can do a search over to the right of this and see what you think. The basic problem I have with Russell's new story is the same I had with her previous ones—they are concept stories—fun to read for their imaginative inventions, but lacking in depth. In this one, it helps if you have read FlaubertLaura van den Berg, "Antarctica." I liked this story of a woman who comes to Antarctica to find out about the death of her brother, not because it was the longest, but because it was the most ambitious in its exploration of the mystery of being human. No tricks, no self-conscious gimmicks here, just an honest exploration of why people do the inexplicable things they do.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
I have been living with the 2014 Best American Short Stories and the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories for the past several weeks, and I am sorry to say it has been a lackluster relationship. Of the forty stories in the two collections, I was impressed by very few. I don't know why the stories seem so ordinary this year.
Are the hundreds of stories that the two editors, Laura Furman and Heidi Pitlor, had to choose from really so bland and predictable that these are the "best" they could find? Were the editors restricted by editorial decisions to make the two collections as bland and "readable" and "accessible" as possible? Have I read so many stories over the years that I have become crotchety and hard to please? I don't know.
Whatever the reason, here are my thumbnail comments on the twenty stories in the O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014. I will post my comments on the twenty stories in Best American Short Stories: 2014 next week.
In "The Gun" by Mark Haddon, two young boys—one somewhat passive, one somewhat aggressive--sneak out of the house with a gun and encounter a deer. You can pretty well predict this is going to be an initiation story involving violence, death, and coming of age—although it is never clear why coming of age has to involve violence and death.
Although Stephen Dixon's "Talk" is a story about a man coping with the death of his wife, it is actually a story about point of view, in which Dixon alternates between the man using "I" and "he" to refer to his thoughts and actions. There's also some literary allusions to Gilgamesh, that iconic "oldest literary work." I suppose one could make something of how we "objectify" ourselves, shift outside ourselves to become an "I" observing our self as a "him," but I am not sure the story makes the effort worthwhile.
Tessa Hadley's "Valentine" is about two 15-year-old British girls with breasts—one small, one luscious—whose talk is "rococo with insincerity." Into their lives comes a boy named Valentine with a swaggering walk and a chin like a faun. The narrator, the one with the small breasts, says his proximity "licked" at her "like a flame." I almost stopped reading at that point. And almost stopped again when she says she read Plato about two souls divided at birth and thinks of herself and Valentine. There's some hot hands-in-the-pants sex, a jealous English teacher, some poetry allusions and a bit of a portrait of the artist as a young woman. All very predictable teeny-silly romance.
Olivia Clare's "Petur" is mainly about "place," in this case a particularly ghostly place in Iceland when the volcano erupts and scatters ash all over everything. It's a mother/son story (she is 61; he is 36)—he gets older and she seems to get younger. There are references to a "land of ash" or "ashland," and being trapped in a volcano. And then she meets a man named Petur. The story exists primarily for the setting of ashland; indeed there would be no story without it.
David Bradley, "You Remember the Pin Mill." This is a second-person "You remember" story—a phrase which begins most paragraphs. Most of the "you remembers" are about the narrator's childhood living in the country with his grandfather, who says such things as "And they found a beloved country, rich with game and fish and timber…" There's some mother/son conflict, some race issues, some lost father problems; but mainly it is about "remembering," which is all well and good, but does tend to get a bit tedious over and over and over and over again.
Kristin Valdez Quade, "Nemecia" is a better "two young girls" story than Tessa Hadley's. But I have already posted a blog on this story, which you can find, if you are of a mind, by doing a search here.
Dylan Landis, "Trust." Still another "two young girls" story, this time a chapter from Landis's Rainey novel. There is also a gun in this story, but the violence so foregrounded in Mark Haddon's story exists here as ominous threat that plays out as a dangerous game. There is kidnapping, intimidation, swaggering, posturing, etc., but since this is a chapter from a novel, you are mainly interested in what shenanigans that rascal Rainey is going to be up to next.
Allison Alsup, "Old Houses" is a sort of ghost story about a killing that took place in one of the houses 30 years ago in this peaceful neighborhood; it haunts the narrator because it is still unsolved. It's a short, lyric story with an evocative tone of mystery and fascination. But about what? Other than the puzzle of how such a thing could have happened here.
Halina Duraj, "Fatherland." The place is Poland, and the time is that of the Nazi persecution of the Poles. The story is about memories of growing up in that context. No tricks of "remembering" as in the David Bradley story—just the marvel at how the father, who suffered the labor camps and the mother who was hit by a truck survived all that and raised a family.
Chanelle Benz, "West of the Known." The interest here is the voice of the 15-year-old Lavinia who tells the story, who moves from saying such things as "disremember" and "brung" to uttering such poetic lines as "The dark of the Texas plain was a solid thing, surrounding, collecting on my face like blue dust." She and her brother rob banks, and she shoots a young teller. It ends in an abandoned stable with a noose thrown over the rafters.
William Trevor, "The Women." Now finally here is a story with some seriousness. But I have already written a blog about it, which might interest you. Do a Search over on the right.
Colleen Morrissey, "Good Faith." Snake-handling and religious fervor in mid America in 1919. The central first-person voice is that of a 20-year old woman who has a momentary faltering of fear and gets bitten. It's primarily a period piece about faith and fundamentalism.
Robert Anthony Siegel, "The Right Imaginary Person." A love story, which, like most love stories, involves one who loves and one who does not. Here, the lover is a young American man in Japan, who becomes involved with a young Japanese woman who writes. He is relatively straightforward; she is relatively conflicted and complex. The relationship will never work.
Louise Erdrich, "Nero." This is a "I remember" story combined with a bit of doggy violence. It's a more complex story than Joyce Carol Oates' dog story in BASS. The first-person narrator is a 7-year-old girl. The dog's name is "Nero," and he is a mystery of lust and hunger, which echoes the violence and desire that the young girl witnesses in humans as well. It is all pretty predictable.
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, "A Golden Light." The extended metaphor of this very short, lyrical story is that when a young woman's father dies, she shuts down her responses to the world—first by being unable to talk, and then having difficulty moving. We don't know how old she is, but the many references to "when she was a child" suggest she is a grown woman, although her thoughts—"I've misplaced my ears, she thought, and tried to remember if she had put them on that morning or had simply gone out without them"—suggest a child's response. This autistic withdrawal—a sort of "Sleeping Beauty" syndrome"—suddenly ends one evening—"the magic hour" of sundown—when her room is bathed in a mysterious flickering light—which turns out to be a child next door with a mirror. A story about the reaction to grief. For a more powerful one, read Chekhov's "Misery" or Mansfield's "The Fly." This one is too easy and too predictable it seems to me.
Chinelo Okparanta, "Fairness"—Another obvious metaphor, this time of young African women bleaching their skin to become "fair," for all the young women want to look like the models in Cosmopolitan. One of the young women uses the ordinary household bleach, with painful results. The social commentary is underlined at the end when the young first-person narrator is envious of her sister's burned skin, because beneath the scabs she is pinkish and thus has wound up with fairness after all, "if only for a while." Social message, too easy.
Kristen Iskandrian, "The Inheritors." The narrator of the story volunteers to work in a thrift shop and meets another woman who interests her. And it is the nature of this interest that constitutes the reader's interest in the story. If I were still teaching, my students would think this is a story about latent homosexuality (whatever that is). But it is not as "simple" as that; the narrator's attraction to the other woman is not merely sexual or merely "romantic," but something else. The narrator says the woman reminds her of a painting she remembers from her childhood of a woman waiting for a train. Since her face is not seen in the painting, the narrator is fascinated by the painting. The narrator says she wants to "unravel" the woman she has met, find a loose thread and pull at it. I think this story has something to do with the mystery of relationships between women, and because I think I understand it only inchoately, this is one of my favorite stories in the O. Henry collection this year. This is James Lasdun's favorite story also. I would like to think that is because he is the best short-story writer of the three judges this year.
Michael Parker, "Deep Eddy." This is a "short short"—only a couple of pages long and therefore by necessity lyrical, compressed, suggestive, and perhaps a bit pretentious. A couple go park at a legendary lover's rendezvous after seeing the Meryl Streep movie of a dingo dog carrying off a baby. The "piece" ends with a montage image of swirling water to suggest the mystery of love and sex. It's carefully done, as such small things must be, but not particularly poetically profound, as such things should be.
Maura Stanton, "Oh Shenandoah"—The gimmick is that a woman and a man with whom she is involved search through Venice--that romantic city of old, valuable, artsy things—for a toilet seat for her apartment. You realize pretty quickly that the story's human plot/theme is the woman's gradual discovery that the man, Hugo, is not only a pretty nice guy, but also a real romantic in a corny ordinary way. All wired together in a predictable, old-fashioned Collier's fashion.
Laura van den Berg, "Opa-Locka." This is judge Joan Silber's favorite story, and I'll be darned if I know why. Silber says what she likes about it is that kept surprising her, that it gave her great pleasure to follow the story down several different paths. But I don't see any different paths, except the most obvious kind of plot paths in this story of two sisters who play detective, all the while trying to come to terms with the relatively simple mystery of their father. Silber says it is deceptively skilled. If so, it deceived me.
Friday, November 7, 2014
In my last post, I commented on the four most frequently-cited "sources" of stories in the 2014 BASS and O. Henry. Here are a few others:
"Ripped From the Headlines"
T. C. Boyle, always the consummate professional writer, usually seems quite "deliberate" in constructing his stories from material "ripped from the headlines." He says his story "The Night of the Satellite"(BASS) is about his awareness of our increasingly cluttered sky and is built around his common structural device of slamming two different scenarios together to see what will result. For a professional writer like Boyle the job is to "make a story," and Boyle makes them out of whatever strikes him, often news items ripped from the headlines (or snipped from the back pages.)
Stories sometimes come from something the author has read or seen on television or the Internet. Colleen Morrissey says her story "Good Faith," (O. Henry) began with her watching a BBC documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church whose hateful anti-gay, anti-Semitic rhetoric she says holds a "train-wreck fascination." She felt there was an uneasiness in the young people about what they were saying. She coincidentally read two pieces about snake-handling and began thinking about how such an act was both empowering and self-hating. She says what she wanted to capture in the story was the tension between power and surrender.
Benjamin Nugent's story "God" (BASS) began with a poem written by one of his creative writing students in which a guy prematurely ejaculated while having sex with her. When he told his fraternity brothers about the poem, they started calling her God. Nugent says one day the first sentence of the story came to him and he liked the sound of its iambic pentameter rhythm.
This notion of stories beginning with a rhythm is a fairly common idea. Most recently, I ran across it in the Nov. 2, 2014 Los Angeles Times review/interview with Denis Johnson. Johnson says: "When I write, I don't think in terms of themes—or think in any terms, really. I'm making what T.S. Eliot called 'quasi-musical' decisions I'm just improvising and adapting, and in that case I suspect the story's course reflects the process of trying to make it…. I get in a teacup and start paddling across the little pond and say 'In seven weeks, I'll land on Mars.' Five years later I'm still going in circles. When I reach the shore in spitting distance of where I started, it's a colossal triumph."
The T. S. Eliot citation is from a letter to critic Cleanth Brooks, T.S. Eliot observed: "Reading your essay made me feel, for instance, that I had been much more ingenious than I had been aware of, because the conscious problems with which one is concerned in the actual writing are more those of a quasi-musical nature, in the arrangement of metric and pattern, than of a conscious exposition of ideas."
Lauren Goff says that a story arrives for her either as a flash or as a slow "underground confluence of separate fixations. She says "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners"(BASS) is of the latter type. She says that fiction writers should read poetry as often as they read fiction and that this story springs from reading John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 7" every morning. The first line of the poem gave her the title of her story.
Although Karen Russell has not been at the writing business as long as T. C. Boyle has, she also is unashamed about creating stories out of "what if" ideas ripped from her reading. She says she sometimes thinks it is liberating to commit to a premise that seems "too goofy to work." "Madame Bovary's Greyhound" (BASS), a story about falling out of love, uses the point of view of the dog belonging Flaubert's fictional character. It is a gimmick, a bit of fun, that allows Russell to pay homage to Flaubert by echoing some of his meticulous language and to upend the usual assumption about a dog's complete devotion by having this dog abandon his famous fictional owner.
Joshua Ferris says he wrote his story "The Breeze" (BASS) entirely on his iPhone. He says he is not sure why, that maybe he just finds the pain of this laborious process fitting. "But the real answer is this," he says, "I wish I could tell you why I write at all."
Sometimes stories are experiments with technique. Stephen Dixon ("Talk," O. Henry) says his story came to him when he was sitting on a bench in front of the Episcopal church across the street from his house with a copy of Gilgamesh he was planning to read. He came up with the first line of "Talk," and wrote it as an experiment in shifting point of view from first person to third person.
Beginning with a Genre
Some stories begin with a genre. Chanelle Benz ("West of the Known," O. Henry) says she originally wanted to write a "literary western," but after introducing some of the characters, she knew she had "blood on the page," a saying she says nobody likes but her, but which best describes when she knows "a story's come alive" and she has characters who "can hurt me with their failings, longings, and loss."
Michael Parker sees his story "Deep Eddy" (O. Henry) as a "flash fiction" or "short story." Thus genre initiated the story, but because short shorts are often like prose poems, it is the music of the words "Deep Eddy," that he says "spawned the story." He creates a brackish backwoods river tainted by legend and sacred to teenagers because it is off-limits, said to be haunted or cursed. He says he dropped the boy and girl into the bottomless swirl of the water and then found other images (and this is indeed a story of images) to "convey what every story I know worth reading is, on some level, about: the sweet, desperate, and inevitable currents of desire.
A Note on Desire
Parker's comment about "desire" being the source of stories may come from Robert Olen Butler's frequently cited suggestion, in his book From Where You Dream. Butler says that yearning seems to be at the very center of fiction as an art form, citing Buddhist thought that human beings cannot exist for even thirty seconds without desiring something. He says yearning is reflected in one of the most fundamental craft points in fiction: plot. "Because plot is simply yearning challenged and thwarted." Butler says, "if there is a unified field theory of yearning in fiction it is: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe."
In the Nov. 2, 2014, issue of the Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin reviewed Denis Johnson's new novel The Laughing Monsters. He also cited some of the email conversation he had with Johnson. Ulin says Johnson sees literature as a way of framing or reckoning with the chaos of a universe we can never understand.
Johnson: "I can't remember very many situations where I had even the tiniest idea of what the heck was going on." Johnson says from time to time he seizes on a philosophy or perspective that helps him hide his bewilderment for a tie before it falls apart and leaves him baffled again. He is now reading Zen Buddhism: According to Buddhism, he says, "Unsatisfied desire is life's bedrock experience."
Parts of Novels
Some stories are parts of novels or beginnings of novels. Halina Duraj says "Fatherland" (O. Henry) actually resulted from his being asked to give a reading, and wanting to read from a novel he was working on, he could not find a section that would stand alone. Consequently, he chose a few short sections and then others that would provide context, which then seemed to call for still other sections. Thus, the story is a "distillation" from the novel Duraj was working on.
Although it clearly stated in the book that the O. Henry Prize Stories will not consider stories that are sections of novels, Tessa Hadley says right up front that "Valentine" is an excerpt from her novel Cover Girl, although, she says the novel was written "very deliberately" as a series of episodes that could stand alone like short stories. Hadley says this corresponds to something she feels about experience in time. "We like to think of our experiences as having the overarching shape and drive of a novel, but actually life more usually happens in fragments and stretches—when change comes it's often as if we start off on a completely new narrative track, forgetting our former selves."
Dylan Landis' "Trust" is a section from her novel, Rainey Royal, which was published by Soho Press in September, 2014. The book description on Amazon promotes the book by noting that Landis won a 2014 O. Henry Prize for "a section of this novel." So, what's the answer? Does the O. Henry Prize editor "consider" sections of novels or does it not?
Sunday, November 2, 2014
One of the most frequently asked questions at short story readings is: "Where did that story come from?" or "How did you get the idea for that story?" It's a perfectly legitimate question. Indeed, what other question can readers ask a writer about a story? Questions such as, "What does that story mean" or "What is that story about? "can only be answered, however tentatively, by readers, not writers. The question usually derives from the reader's sense that a story comes from "real life," which is usually more respected than "fiction." It often means, "O.K. I have heard your 'made-up' story; now tell me about the 'real' thing.
Because this is such an inevitable reader question, the O. Henry Prize Stories' appendix, "Writers on Their Work" and the Best American Short Stories' section "Contributor's Notes" usually focus primarily on writers talking about the source of their story. The following are the four most frequently-cited sources of the stories in both volumes. I will talk more about the stories in the next few weeks.
Beginning with Personal Experience
Sometimes, but certainly not always, stories come from personal experience. Louise Erdrich says that her story "Nero" (O. Henry) was based on the fact that her grandparents really did have a dog named Nero who was always escaping from the backyard. She also says the python experience in the story was based on actual experience, as was the fact that her grandfather wrestled for prize money in small farm towns in Iowa. But personal experience does not mean anything until it is made into a story. Erdrich says she did not know what to make of Nero until one morning when she was writing this story. Erdrich suggests that in the process of writing this story, she discovered it was about "existence, inevitability, and time."
Joyce Carol Oates, the consummate "profession" writer, seems to create stories out of everything she comes across, says her story "Mastiff" (BASS) derived from an actual experience when she and her husband went hiking in a canyon near Berkeley, California. She says the experience was so vivid and her emotions so intense, it was not difficult to write the story; she insists, however, that the story is fiction, "whatever its wellsprings in actual life."
One of the most common bits of advice often given to MFA candidates is, "Write about what you know." But that perhaps does not always work best. David Bradley ("You Remember the Pin Mill," O. Henry) says he started out wanting to write about what he knew—the experience of black Americans," but changed his focus when his agent suggested, "Why not write about white people." When he wrote about a couple of white guys in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania both in love with the same woman drinking beer in a pickup, a magazine ran the story with an illustration depicting both men as black. Bradley notes, "Stereotypes and expectations apply to writers too."
Maura Stanton says her story "Oh, Shenandoah" (O. Henry) began with a personal experience of breaking a toilet seat in the apartment she was renting in Venice. When she tried to find a replacement, she realized what an absurd quest it was to try to find a toilet seat in a city full of glass and lace and masks and marbled paper. She thought this "unromantic side" of Venice might be interesting to write about. But this was just an anecdote, not a story. It was only when she came up with Marie's need to make a decision about Hugo and her recollection of hearing a chorus of college students singing "Shenandoah" once in Venice that she knew what to do with Hugo. Stanton says "once my invented world got untethered from the real world and started obeying its own laws," she was able to find the toilet seat; that is, she was able to discover what the story was about.
O.A. Lindsey, whose story "Evie M" (BASS) derives from his combat experience during Operation Desert Storm, says the gist of the story is a nontraditional soldier facing "postwar pinpricks and the anxiety related to each."
Will Mackin's story "Kattekoppen" (BASS) also stems from military (Navy) experience, this time in Afghanistan, in which he felt he never quite got his bearings and that every day was an exercise in crisis management.
Beginning with a Concept
It has always been my opinion that good short stories are usually about universal mysteries of human experience. Although this means that a short story is more often focused on theme than merely on plot or character, it does not necessarily mean that a short story writer begins with a theme or idea and then develops plot and character to embody that theme. Indeed, such a tactic is apt to create a static "illustration"—at its most extreme an exemplum or a story with a moral.
However, sometimes a story does begin with a concept. For example in BASS, Charles Baxter's story "Charity" is one of a series of stories Baxter conceived on virtues and vices. Baxter had a story in last year's BASS entitled "Bravery." Both stories will appear with others in a new book due out in February 2015 entitled There's Something I Want You To Do. The interrelated stories, featuring characters that appear and reappear, are in two sections--one devoted to virtues (“Bravery,” “Loyalty,” “Chastity,” “Charity,” and “Forbearance”) and the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice,” “Gluttony,” and “Vanity”).
The problem with such an approach, as Peter Cameron ("After the Flood," BASS), observes, is, what might called, the exemplum effect. Cameron says that since he does not write short stories very much anymore, he has to give himself some assignment or problem to solve in order to "jump-start" a story, hoping that such a "forced inception" won't weaken the story, that the story will "transcend its deliberateness."
Molly McNett says her story "La Pulchra Nota" (BASS) began as a contemporary story about a high school choir director falling in love with his student's beautiful voice, but then she found a text on singing that mentioned the theory of la pulchra nota, about teaching from the perfect note by Medieval music theorist Jerome of Moravia. Her story began to come together when she decided to put the story in that era. Then she came across a story of a man who lost his whole family in a month and still maintained his faith and trust in God. She says she wanted her voice teacher to have that kind of faith though she can't claim to share or fully understand it.
Nell Freudenberger's story "Hover" (BASS) began with the notion of a mother who could fly---not like superwoman, but rather sort of a gentle lift off the ground to hover in an awkward, unplanned, useless sort of way.
Chinelo Okparanta says her story "Fairness" (O. Henry) began with wanting to explore an issue she observed in women in East and Southeast Asia of women of a certain class wanting to keep their skin color light. The issue she explored, she says, however, was about loyalty and betrayal across social strata, not about skin bleaching.
Beginning with an Obsession
Some stories begin with an obsession, either a general obsessive focus of the writer or a particular event or observation that haunts the writer.
Allison Alsup ("Old Houses," O. Henry) tells about learning of an unsolved double murder of a wife and daughter in her neighborhood when she was a child. She was friends with a girl who lived in the house of the suspected murderer, a teenage boy. She and the girl thought the house was haunted. She says she was never able to reconcile that violence with the peacefulness of her street and felt compelled to write the story "in order to discover its potential significance." "Writers are negotiators," says Alsup, "hashing out ideas until seemingly opposite camps can sit at the same table and come to some sort of understanding."
Craig Davidson ("Medium Tough," BASS) says he is always interested in characters who are physically and emotionally broken; he says he likes characters who keep on trucking despite what life throws at them. He says he is not sure why he is drawn to such characters, although he thinks perhaps a therapist could.
Kristen Iskandrian says "The Inheritors," (O. Henry) revolves around some of her pet obsessions, the most fundamental of which is the "multilayered entity of the female friends, and wanted the "fumbling bloom of a relationship" be the story's "pulse." She chose a consignment store as the primary setting because she likes the "sentimental mess of things disowned and things reclaimed, an orphanage for objects." In such a place, she says her characters reveal their disparate desires and "inscribe one another."
Beginning with an Image
Often stories begin with an image. Olivia Clare ("Petur," O. Henry) says that when she lived in Iceland in 2010 for a short time, she saw the land covered with ash from the eruption of a volcano and imagined "a preternatural mother venturing out into an eerie scrim of ash"; almost before realizing what had happened, she imagined the woman meeting someone.
David Gates says his story "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" (BASS) began with an image--not one he remembered, but rather one a friend remembered of seeing Gates playing mandolin in a coffeehouse in New Haven when he was a high school kid. He says he recalls a fellow student at Bard College with a TR-6, and the death of the mandolin play in the story shares some details of the death of his father. He once kept chickens and he is a student of nineteenth-century British novels. Thus the story is a patchwork of many different things that seem to "come together" meaningfully.
Dylan Landis ("Trust," O. Henry) says it was an image of a teenager sneaking though her father's filing cabinet that sparked the story of Rainey Royal digging around and spotting her hated middle name on her birth certificate—a "fishhook that snags everything she finds unlovable in herself. The second image—which Landis says surprised her--was a gun tucked between file folders. Landis says she believes if you "root in the basement of the mind and grasp and object in the muck, your subconscious put it there for a reason." Landis says that as she wrote the story she had no idea how it would end, noting, "With every story I write, I like finding my endings in the muck of the basement too."
Mark Haddon ("The Gun," O. Henry) says "Good stories seem to come from some weird zone it's impossible to access in retrospect. "After all," he says, "if we knew how they came into being they'd be a damn sight easier to write." He says he only knows he had been "haunted" for a long time by the image of two boys pushing a pram containing a dead deer across the highway several miles from where he lives. He says he has no idea where the image came from, only that it had a particular charge and stuck with him. Haddon says the story contains several elements that keep cropping up in his writing, including a locale that might be described as "grubby, liminal, unloved places that are neither town nor country, whose ownership is dubious and that are never en route to anywhere," but, he adds, that might "just be portals to somewhere else altogether."
Stephen O'Connor says "Next to Noting" (BASS) would not have been written if it were not for Hurricane Irene. However, he says the "real inspiration" for the story was an image that just popped into his head of two sisters with black pageboy haircuts and eyes pale blue like the moon. When he started developing the image, he realized that wo sisters were entirely lacking in "fellow feeling," and consummately rational. When he realized that this seemed parallel with nature, he knew he would have the two women face Hurricane Irene—all of which became a means by which he could explore his longtime notion that although he is an atheist there are certain things he wants to believe that cannot be sustained by rational interpretation.
All of the Above
Of course, most stories combine all four of these "sources," as the writer engages in a dynamic process of discovery "about" something mysteriously human. The story's relationship to "real life" is usually more complex than the question about where the story comes from assumes and can only be discovered by the reader's engaging in a close reading of the fictional life of the story.